Siem Reap, Cambodia (May 2016)
A trip to Southeast Asia would be incomplete without a visit to Angkor Wat. This UNESCO World Heritage site can be found in northwestern Cambodia, just outside of Siem Reap. The village of Siem Reap was always there, but its downtown area has evolved into a resort town, mostly catering to tourists. The fancy downtown area is a stark contrast to how people live in the surrounding areas.
Siem Reap and Angkor Wat have undergone a serious boom in tourism over the last 10 to 15 years. This can probably be attributed to a combination of Tomb Raider being filmed there, Southeast Asia’s rise as a cheap, tourist-friendly region, and the increase in popularity of the Internet as a way to share and discover places like this. We learned about Angkor Wat through Reddit, Quora and many other travel articles – it would consistently come up in threads about “places you must visit in your lifetime.” And the pictures sell themselves. The temples look amazing. Walking around these sites, many of which are over a thousand years old, and in various states of collapse and repair, kind of felt like being in an Indiana Jones movie. The only downside were the crowds. We went during April, one of the hottest, driest months of the year, and therefore one of the least busy months for tourism. Even so, there were crowds at the popular temples. We tended to enjoy the less popular ones simply because we would be among a handful of people there, and those temples were just as interesting.
We gave ourselves three full days in Siem Reap. In our opinion, this wasn’t enough time. There are around 300 temples in and around the area. A small number of them are well preserved or have undergone restoration and are on the map as tourist destinations. We only got to explore nine of those. To be fair, we limited ourselves to the mornings and late afternoons due to the heat; had we powered through, we could have seen more, but we would have enjoyed them less. The heat was oppressive, and we could tell when we reached our limit each day. We could have easily stayed a few more days, and a true archeology geek could spend weeks there. If we could do it over again, we would take advantage of the mornings more. Aside from the famous Angkor Wat temple, most people don’t start showing up until after the temples open…but the temples opening just means the inside. The temple is often just a small part of the site, and there are no restrictions on walking around the site before opening time. This would be a great way to see more without the crowds. Often times we enjoyed walking around the outside just as much as inside. The outside of the some of the temples are littered with piles of rocks. In reality, these rock piles are crumbled pieces of the temples. There are carvings on the majority of these “rocks.” They’re laying around, just waiting for someone to figure out how to put this massive puzzle back together.
Earlier in our trip, when we were still debating where Cambodia fit into our itinerary, we had heard from friends and read on travel blogs that places like Phonm Penh, Cambodia’s capital, were seeing a big increase in crime towards tourists, a serious contrast to the reputation that Southeast Asia has. Our final decision was to still go to Siem Reap, and we’re glad we did! We were pleasantly surprised by how nice the locals were. Everyone always had a smile on their face. Children would wave to us from the side of the road. When traffic got a little hairy one afternoon, we shared a frightened look and then a good laugh with the motorbike beside us. Everyone seemed genuinely happy. The people made our time in Cambodia special.
And then there were the temples. Wow…it’s hard to imagine that one of these temples exists, let alone almost 300 in a close area. There’s so much attention to detail in every aspect of the construction of these things. We weren’t sure how much we would like Angkor Wat. Well, we liked it a lot, and highly recommend it!
It would be impossible to share just a handful of pictures from this part of our trip, so we’re switching things up. We’ve grouped our pictures below by each temple that we explored, with a little bit of information (taken from the inter webs!) about each temple. The pictures don’t do these places justice. It’s hard to capture all of the intricate details. Regardless, enjoy!
Angkor Wat is the most famous and popular temple in Siem Reap, which is evident by the thousands of tourists that visit each day. It was built between roughly 1113 and 1150 A.D., and encompasses an area of about 500 acres. Angkor Wat is one of the largest religious monuments ever constructed. Its name means “temple city.” Getting up in the middle of the night to be there for the sun rise was worth it!
Angkor Thom Gates
Five grand entrances allowed access to Angkor Thom, the capital city during the 12th century. There is one gate for each direction (North, South, East, and West) and the Victory Gate leading to the Royal Palace area. Each gate is crowned with 4 giant faces and framed by elephants wading amongst lotus flowers. On each side of the causeway are railings fashioned with 54 stone figures engaged in the performance of a famous Hindu story: the myth of the Churning of the Ocean. On the left side of the moat, 54 ‘devas’ (guardian gods) pull the head of the snake ‘Shesha’ while on the right side 54 ‘asuras’ (demon gods) pull the snake’s tail in the opposite direction.
Prasat Bayon was built in the late 12th century, about 100 years after Angkor Wat. This temple is best known for the mysterious faces on its many towers. In total, there are about 200 faces. How many can you spot? This temple looks like it should be on another planet.
Baksei Chamkrong is a small temple that many most likely just drive past. When we visited, it was empty. This was the first pyramid shaped temple in the area that was built entirely of durable materials like brick, laterite and sandstone. Maybe that’s why it looks almost exactly as it did when it was first built.
Terrace of the Elephants
The Terrace of the Elephants is part of the walled city of Angkor Thom. The terrace was used as an audience hall and as a viewing platform for public ceremonies. It stretches over 980 feet and features carvings of elephants and their mahouts. At several sections, large elephant heads protrude out from the wall with their long trunks forming pillars extending to the ground.
The Baphuon temple was built in the mid-11th century. When the Baphuon was discovered and cleared in the early 20th century, it was overgrown, partly collapsed and in a very poor state of repair. To restore the temple, most of it was dismantled and the hundreds of thousands of stones laid out and numbered. The unstable base of the monument was reinforced, and the temple was reconstructed. This process took decades.
Suor Prat Towers
We stumbled upon these towers when leaving Baphoun and the Elephant Terrace, which are located across the street. We were fascinated with their appearance, which looked like something out of a fairytale or a Harry Potter movie. There are 12 towers all together, all identical. The function of these towers remain unknown, although it’s believed that they were used to settle disputes.
Ta Prohm is best known as the Tomb Raider temple, since portions of the movie were filmed here. This temple was built in the late 12th and 13th centuries, and was used as a Buddhist monastery and university. It remains largely as it was found. It has become one with the jungle, with large trees growing in and around it.
Pre Rup means ‘Turning the Body’ and refers to a traditional method of cremation – suggesting that the temple may have served as an early royal crematorium. This is a popular temple to watch the sunset.
Banteay Srei was one of our favorite temples. It’s located about 23 miles outside of the main temple area in Siem Reap, but it’s worth the drive. We got there early and had the place mostly to ourselves. It was built in the 10th century with red sandstone. Banteay Srei means “Citadel of Women,” and it is said that the reliefs on this temple are so delicate that they could only have been carved by the hand of a woman. The carvings on this temple are very well preserved, and most of them can still be seen today.
Another one of our favorites, Preah Khan was built in the 12th century. It’s largely been left unrestored and has numerous trees growing in and through the ruins. Preah Khan was apparently more than just a monastery, it was an entire city enclosing a town of 138 acres.
Located about 9 miles outside of the main temple area, Prasat Bakong was built at the end of the 9th century. This temple used to be covered with carvings, but today only fragments remain.
And finally, here are a few pictures that we managed to snap in between temples!